One of the significant characteristics of North Korea is that the whole society is isolated. North Korean people are strictly and completely blocked from information of the outside world and cultural communication. For decades, the North Korean regime has maintained this obstruction as their justification to defend their people from ideological infiltration of imperialism. They often describe it as ‘mosquito net’.
According to their description, this obstruction is their protection for ‘toxin’. Of course, it is the regime that defines the external information or culture as ‘toxin’, and the North Korean residents are obligated to believe it. What is certain is that the level of North Korean people’s exposure to the outside world is directly proportional to the crisis of the regime. The more outside information and cultures North Korean people conceive the more risk the regime will face. For that specific reason, the North Korean regime had struggled to restrain its citizens.
In North Korea, it is prohibited and illegalized to learn/know about the outside world. One can become a subject for persecution just by listening to unauthorized radio station or reading publication from the outside world. One can also be detained in a concentration camp for the same reason. It certainly raises a question about how much North Korean residents are interested in learning about the outside world under such brutal circumstances.
One thing that the North Korean regime hasn’t realized and doesn’t bother to know is that the harder the regime tries to restrict the information and culture from the outside world, the more eager North Korean people become to learn about it. It’s just human nature. If you are locked up in a room with a door closed, you will try to look through a crack to look outside.
I realized this by living in a confined North Korean society for decades. Until early 90’s, one or two foreign movies were broadcasted by North Korean Central Television at nights on every weekend. Those foreign movies were originally filmed in communist countries such as China, Romania, Cuba and the former Soviet Union. However, it was the only way for North Korean people to learn about other cultures and nations.
The streets were very quiet every Saturday and Sunday nights because everyone stayed inside to watch those foreign movies. Back then, only a small number of households in a town had their own televisions, and they were always disturbed by overcrowding audience. The workers from the factory which I worked at would stop working to watch the movies on television. This was a common scene of weekend in North Korea in early 90’s.
In North Korea, the media is being used to advertise the greatness and power of the Kim Dynasty, or to propagate the contradictions of capitalist countries, rather than a method to deliver facts and information. Nevertheless, North Korean people have eyes to see the truths. They have developed such interesting perspective when examining those manipulating advertisements from the regime. North Korean people became accustomed to interpreting regime’s misleading information into their own words, the words that reveal the truths.
For instance, if the news about South Korean farmers protesting against the government’s new legislation on opening the rice market to third countries was broadcasted in North Korea, the North Korean people would think that “There must be a surplus of rice in South Korea”. Likewise, if the North Korean people hear about corrupted former politics, including former presidents, being ended up in a jail, they would envy about the democratic society/system of South Korea.
The North Korean Central Television sometimes broadcasts video footages of protests occurred in South Korea. While watching those footages, what North Korean people actually pay attention to is neither the messages written on wooden boards nor what the reporter says. Indeed, they are more interested in watching the views of streets in South Korea and the way South Korean protesters are dressed. Even within such confined society, the North Korean people developed such interesting perspective.
Ironically, the North Korean regime’s criticism toward the outside world (capitalism) ended up making its people longing for ‘the outside world’. I wonder whether the regime is aware of such fact or not. They definitely have overlooked the fact that deception can’t last too long.
Words spread out very quickly in North Korean society. The media holds absolutely no interest in dealing with any accidents or interesting incidents that occur in the country. It’s the people that spread words from mouth to mouth. In 1997, I heard about the defection of the former North Korean politician Mr. Jang-yop Hwang, from someone during my business trip in Sariwon City, Northern Hwang-hae Province. The next day, I travelled on a train to Hamheung City, Southern Hamkyung Province and the residents in that part of the country were already aware of this news. This is how quickly words spread out in North Korea where there is no internet or media to obtain information from. After about a month, the North Korean regime officially announced this incident to the public. And of course, Mr. Hwang was deemed to be a traitor and a criminal.
Despite the efforts of the North Korean State Security Department officers (Bo-wi-bu) try to locate the origin of the spreading words and to stop it, they always fail as the North Korea people are masterful at protecting themselves. They never hold any political opinion while relaying the news onto others. Their political opinions are secretly kept in their mind.
If one must be persecuted for saying exactly what he/she heard on the street, then every North Korean must be a criminal. It is almost impossible to locate the origin of the words as they go literary everywhere where people are and the investigating officers will eventually face ‘physical challenge’ during their operation. This means that it is impossible to suppress the human instinct of wondering for truth.
Many people believe that North Korean people are being deceived or fooled by the regime but that’s not entirely true. In fact, they are simply too afraid to risk their lives by standing up to the merciless dictatorship. ‘Obedient is the only way to live’ is the reality that North Korean people are facing.
Even at this very moment, North Korean regime is playing ‘Hide and seek’ with its people. The regime is trying their best to preserve their system through instigation, manipulation, and brainwashing upon the citizens. The North Korean citizens are so used to intentionally ignoring the brutality and vulnerability of the regime’s system. The truth is that the North Korean society is full of contradictions. Expecting positive outcomes from the current societal system of North Korea by misjudging would be a fatal mistake.